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Watch: Farmers market staple opens new Vancouver bakery-café

A love story rooted in punk rock and wedding cakes begins an exciting new chapter in Vancouver

There's a new bakery-café welcoming customers on Main Street in Vancouver's Riley Park, and it grew out of a love story melding the worlds of punk rock and wedding cakes.

But for Metro Vancouver farmers' market shoppers, Sweet Thea is a familiar friend who happens to have some sweet new digs.

The Thea in Sweet Thea is Thea Mercer, who launched her specialty cake business several years ago. After an accomplished career as a pastry chef at several high-profile B.C. restaurants (Cioppino's, Sooke Harbour House), she had grown weary of some of the food waste she was seeing, and wanted to start her own business. 

Her now-husband, longtime B.C. alternative music promoter Laurie Mercer, brought a little bit of his punk rock spirit to the conversation.

"I encouraged her over a glass of wine," Laurie Mercer says with a grin.

From wedding cakes to a market staple

Thea swiftly earned acclaim for her beautiful and delicious cakes, going from doing one or two wedding cakes a month to 17 a week at the business' peak, about two years after launch.

Sweet Thea had outgrown their rented Langley kitchen space, and the farmers market was calling. The Sweet Thea line-up expanded to include several baked goods and their holiday treats, like fruitcake and stollen, became staples on the Christmas market scene. Then the Vancouver Farmers' Market asked Sweet Thea to consider baking bread.

The answer was yes, and, once again, growth was on the menu. Sweet Thea solidified itself as one of the region's favourite market stalls for finding true sourdough loaves and scratch-made bread and treats. 

The spirit of community continued to call, as did Vancouver, drawing the Mercers in from their suburban operations in the Metro region. (Sweet Thea has a popular stall at the Tsawwassen Quay market at the BC Ferries terminal and also continues to use a commercial kitchen in Langley.)

Opening a permanent Sweet Thea space in Vancouver always the goal

First, Sweet Thea created a shared vendor space on Main Street, operating as a pop-up. But a permanent store in Vancouver was always the dream - and one with room to have a café operation and lots of seats for the locals to sit down and catch up with friends or a good book. 

The Mercers jumped at the chance to set up at 4789 Main St Riley Park building what Laurie says is a dream space for doing some baking, serving breakfast and lunch, and creating a warm community hub.

One wall of the new Sweet Thea café is lined with packaged treats, like ribbon-tied bags of cookies, as well as local artisan goods. The focal point is the ample counter and display case flanking the entire back of the room, where drinks are brewed up by passionate baristas and rows of fresh-baked sourdough line shelves. The cases are stocked to capacity early each morning with everything from savoury focaccia to morning breads and buns, to croissants, danishes, and cookies. 

As another sign of growth, Sweet Thea is working with a local French baker who produces traditional patisseries, like Religieuses (double-stacked cream puffs that resemble nuns) and macarons. 

Sweet Thea's sourdough a base for cafe eats like avocado toast, grilled cheese

On the menu are daytime eats that marry Sweet Thea's tender, tangy, crusty sourdough with ingredients sourced from the bakery's many farmers' markets contacts. An avocado toast features a sunny side up egg and bacon crumbles, while the sourdough is put to stellar use as a gooey grilled cheese with caramelized onions teamed up for the perfect dipping experience in a thick bowl of butternut squash soup. 

It's clear the new café, which will have its grand opening in mid-March as the final touches are put in place, is where Thea's bread and pastry shine, but there's also a lot of Laurie in the room. He's behind the digital art display that changes daily and is curated thematically and the "take a book, leave a book" table at the front, which he says has been an instant hit with guests.

And of course, it's hard to imagine the promoter behind local music icons like DOA, doesn't still have music in his blood. Laurie proudly shares he curated the playlist for the store, which solely features songs from the first 50 years of recorded music, organized by tempo. 

'It's all about the community'

Sweet Thea's commitment to building community is also further echoed in the cafe's design, which boasts an open kitchen design. A glass wall will allow guests to watch bakers at work at a wide bench and the plan is to have Thea eventually facilitate some special baking classes. Being open and welcoming is at the core of what the business stands for, describes Laurie.

At the end of the day, whatever loaves don't sell certainly don't end up in the compost bin - after all, Sweet Thea was born from a desire to not waste food - and they won't get listed on an app like Too Good to Go, either. Laurie says they aren't interested in making a few bucks from those breads when there are people in the community who need to eat. 

Instead, Sweet Thea's end-of-day surplus goes to any of the six charities they have relationships with, often being turned instantly into sandwiches that are handed out on the Downtown Eastside mere hours later. 

"The 'act local' philosophy is super important to us," explains Mercer. "It's all about the community."

Watch: Inside Sweet Thea's new Vancouver bakery-café

@forkingawesomevia Can’t stop thinking about the grilled cheese on sourdough. #vancouverbc #forkingawesome #bakery #bread ♬ Cute - Audiolist Productions

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